World’s biggest driverless car race: ‘a new type of motor sport with different heroes’

This weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix sees the Yas Marina Circuit host the most advanced racing cars in the world preparing to do wheel-to-wheel battle.

But although the race is on the 2024 F1 schedule, the same may not be true next year. Because, next spring, ten entirely different teams are set to compete on the track with cars that could go far beyond F1 in pushing the boundaries of science and motor sport — without a single driver.

On April 24, 2024 the lights are due to go out on the largest championship yet for driverless racing cars. Ten Dallara-made Super Formula SF23s, based on Japanese Super Formula cars, will be piloted solely by artificial intelligence (AI), each trained to compete wheel-to-wheel at over 180mph by some of the brightest software engineers in the world.

“It’s possible to race autonomously but nobody has done it with more than two cars”

We’ve seen autonomous racing cars before, and even a handful of ‘races’, but the Abu Dhabi Driverless Racing League (A2RL), takes driverless competition to an ambitious new level, even though spectators have so far failed to warm to the idea.

“As of now, we know it’s possible to race a car autonomously on its own at serious speeds around a racetrack — we’ve done it and others have done it,” said Thomas McCarthy, executive director of Abu Dhabi state investor Aspire, which set up the series. “It’s also possible to race two cars around the racetrack where they actually engage and pass each other. But nobody has done it with more than two cars as of now.”

A2RL 2A2RL 2

Autonomous F1? The A2RL series aims to break new ground

A2RL

If all goes to plan, April will see ten cars, powered by 2-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged engines and programmed by teams from universities around the world, light up their rear tyres and rocket towards the 90-degree right-hand Turn 1 at Yas Marina while jostling for position, feinting overtakes and taking aggressive lines, just as F1’s human pilots will this weekend.

The split-second decisions will be taken by an AI module, which will use sensors including radar and lidar (laser) scanners, as well as cameras and GPS to build up a picture of the circuit and competitors, then decide on the course of action that is most likely to win the race, using a drive-by-wire system to activate the accelerator, brakes and steering and gears.

Race weekends, initially planned to take place only at Yas Marina, will consist of sprint races, time trials and feature races, with full details still to be announced.

But A2RL has its work cut out merely to get the series off the ground, let alone race with ten cars on the same grid. It says that some teams are behind schedule in preparing for the first race, while the experience of other series with similar ambitions sounds a warning note.

Roborace’s warning shot

The Roborace project was shut down in 2022 after years of challenging development, marked by car that drove straight into a wall and another that crashed during a demonstration in front of spectators at a Formula E race. Roborace eventually ran an initial championship, also with university teams, but the cars never achieved the ability to battle wheel-to-wheel. In some races, they had to overtake virtual competitors, displayed as graphics onscreen. In others, they duelled with a rival car. If one closed to within a certain gap, the leading car would slow down, and let the trailing car overtake.

In contrast, the US-based Indy Autonomous Challenge is still going strong, but is ramping up at a slower pace. This year’s challenge brought together competing university teams that had developed their own autonomous software. Each then tested their work in an adapted IndyCar by passing another car driving at a steady speed on track. The speeds were gradually increased until just one was left standing.

A “Next Gen” autonomous car is due to be unveiled in January at the CES technology show, when it’s promised that nine teams will take part in a race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Passing competition at 2023 Indy Autonomous ChallengePassing competition at 2023 Indy Autonomous Challenge

Competitors in the Indy Autonomous Challenge had to pass rivals at increasing speeds

Indy Autonomous Challenge

Although there’s a novelty factor, autonomous racing has not attracted large numbers of fans so far, and even the ambitions of Abu Dhabi’s A2RL series don’t extend to winning over followers of other racing series that rely on the natural instinct and adrenaline-fuelled pace of a human driver. It’s not meant for them though. This is a super-sized, motor sport-themed science experiment.

“We want it to be a sport, so that there is a certain degree of enjoyment,” McCarthy told Motor Sport. “But also potentially to be pushing ahead, with technological developments that can have near and long term benefits for humanity — that’s a real big driver for us.”

Those wider ambitions appear to be why Aspire, which invests in technology research on behalf of the Abu Dhabi government, created A2RL. The racing in Abu Dhabi will be a chance to test the latest in AI development, which could later be applied into general problem solving as well as the driverless technology that is becoming ever more prominent in our road cars. As McCarthy points out, technology that can safely race wheel-to-wheel at over 180mph, should be able to handle driving down a lane of a British motorway.


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